A.P. Chekhov - A Trivial Incident
IT was a sunny August midday as, in company with a Russian
prince who had come down in the world, I drove into the immense
so-called Shabelsky pine-forest where we were intending to look
for woodcocks. In virtue of the part he plays in this story my
poor prince deserves a detailed description. He was a tall, dark
man, still youngish, though already somewhat battered by life;
with long moustaches like a police captain's; with prominent
black eyes, and with the manners of a retired army man. He was a
man of Oriental type, not very intelligent, but straightforward
and honest, not a bully, not a fop, and not a rake -- virtues
which, in the eyes of the general public, are equivalent to a
certificate of being a nonentity and a poor creature. People
generally did not like him (he was never spoken of in the
district, except as "the illustrious duffer"). I personally
found the poor prince extremely nice with his misfortunes and
failures, which made up indeed his whole life. First of all he
was poor. He did not play cards, did not drink, had no
occupation, did not poke his nose into anything, and maintained
a perpetual silence but yet he had somehow succeeded in getting
through thirty to forty thousand roubles left him at his
father's death. God only knows what had become of the money. All
that I can say is that owing to lack of supervision a great deal
was stolen by stewards, bailiffs, and even footmen; a great deal
went on lending money, giving bail, and standing security. There
were few landowners in the district who did not owe him money.
He gave to all who asked, and not so much from good nature or
confidence in people as from exaggerated gentlemanliness as
though he would say: "Take it and feel how comme il faut I am!"
By the time I made his acquaintance he had got into debt
himself, had learned what it was like to have a second mortgage
on his land, and had sunk so deeply into difficulties that there
was no chance of his ever getting out of them again. There were
days when he had no dinner, and went about with an empty
cigar-holder, but he was always seen clean and fashionably
dressed, and always smelt strongly of ylang-ylang.
The prince's second misfortune was his absolute solitariness. He
was not married, he had no friends nor relations. His silent and
reserved character and his comme il faut deportment, which
became the more conspicuous the more anxious he was to conceal
his poverty, prevented him from becoming intimate with people.
For love affairs he was too heavy, spiritless, and cold, and so
rarely got on with women. . . .
When we reached the forest this prince and I got out of the
chaise and walked along a narrow woodland path which was hidden
among huge ferns. But before we had gone a hundred paces a tall,
lank figure with a long oval face, wearing a shabby reefer
jacket, a straw hat, and patent leather boots, rose up from
behind a young fir-tree some three feet high, as though he had
sprung out of the ground. The stranger held in one hand a basket
of mushrooms, with the other he playfully fingered a cheap
watch-chain on his waistcoat. On seeing us he was taken aback,
smoothed his waistcoat, coughed politely, and gave an agreeable
smile, as though he were delighted to see such nice people as
us. Then, to our complete surprise, he came up to us, scraping
with his long feet on the grass, bending his whole person, and,
still smiling agreeably, lifted his hat and pronounced in a
sugary voice with the intonations of a whining dog:
"Aie, aie . . . gentlemen, painful as it is, it is my duty to
warn you that shooting is forbidden in this wood. Pardon me for
venturing to disturb you, though unacquainted, but . . . allow
me to present myself. I am Grontovsky, the head clerk on Madame
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, but why can't we shoot?"
"Such is the wish of the owner of this forest!"
The prince and I exchanged glances. A moment passed in silence.
The prince stood looking pensively at a big fly agaric at his
feet, which he had crushed with his stick. Grontovsky went on
smiling agreeably. His whole face was twitching, exuding honey,
and even the watch-chain on his waistcoat seemed to be smiling
and trying to impress us all with its refinement. A shade of
embarrassment passed over us like an angel passing; all three of
us felt awkward.
"Nonsense!" I said. "Only last week I was shooting here!"
"Very possible!" Grontovsky sniggered through his teeth. "As a
matter of fact everyone shoots here regardless of the
prohibition. But once I have met you, it is my duty . . . my
sacred duty to warn you. I am a man in a dependent position. If
the forest were mine, on the word of honour of a Grontovsky, I
should not oppose your agreeable pleasure. But whose fault is it
that I am in a dependent position?"
The lanky individual sighed and shrugged his shoulders. I began
arguing, getting hot and protesting, but the more loudly and
impressively I spoke the more mawkish and sugary Grontovsky's
face became. Evidently the consciousness of a certain power over
us afforded him the greatest gratification. He was enjoying his
condescending tone, his politeness, his manners, and with
peculiar relish pronounced his sonorous surname, of which he was
probably very fond. Standing before us he felt more than at
ease, but judging from the confused sideway glances he cast from
time to time at his basket, only one thing was spoiling his
satisfaction -- the mushrooms, womanish, peasantish, prose,
derogatory to his dignity.
"We can't go back!" I said. "We have come over ten miles!"
"What's to be done?" sighed Grontovsky. "If you had come not ten
but a hundred thousand miles, if the king even had come from
America or from some other distant land, even then I should
think it my duty . . . sacred, so to say, obligation . . ."
"Does the forest belong to Nadyezhda Lvovna?" asked the prince.
"Yes, Nadyezhda Lvovna . . ."
"Is she at home now?"
"Yes . . . I tell you what, you go to her, it is not more than
half a mile from here; if she gives you a note, then I. . . . I
needn't say! Ha -- ha . . . he -- he -- !"
"By all means," I agreed. "It's much nearer than to go back. . .
. You go to her, Sergey Ivanitch," I said, addressing the
prince. "You know her."
The prince, who had been gazing the whole time at the crushed
agaric, raised his eyes to me, thought a minute, and said:
"I used to know her at one time, but . . . it's rather awkward
for me to go to her. Besides, I am in shabby clothes. . . . You
go, you don't know her. . . . It's more suitable for you to go."
I agreed. We got into our chaise and, followed by Grontovsky's
smiles, drove along the edge of the forest to the manor house. I
was not acquainted with Nadyezhda Lvovna Kandurin, ne
Shabelsky. I had never seen her at close quarters, and knew her
only by hearsay. I knew that she was incredibly wealthy, richer
than anyone else in the province. After the death of her father,
Shabelsky, who was a landowner with no other children, she was
left with several estates, a stud farm, and a lot of money. I
had heard that, though she was only twenty-five or twenty-six,
she was ugly, uninteresting, and as insignificant as anybody,
and was only distinguished from the ordinary ladies of the
district by her immense wealth.
It has always seemed to me that wealth is felt, and that the
rich must have special feelings unknown to the poor. Often as I
passed by Nadyezhda Lvovna's big fruit garden, in which stood
the large, heavy house with its windows always curtained, I
thought: "What is she thinking at this moment? Is there
happiness behind those blinds?" and so on. Once I saw her from a
distance in a fine light cabriolet, driving a handsome white
horse, and, sinful man that I am, I not only envied her, but
even thought that in her poses, in her movements, there was
something special, not to be found in people who are not rich,
just as persons of a servile nature succeed in discovering "good
family" at the first glance in people of the most ordinary
exterior, if they are a little more distinguished than
themselves. Nadyezhda Lvovna's inner life was only known to me
by scandal. It was said in the district that five or six years
ago, before she was married, during her father's lifetime, she
had been passionately in love with Prince Sergey Ivanitch, who
was now beside me in the chaise. The prince had been fond of
visiting her father, and used to spend whole days in his
billiard room, where he played pyramids indefatigably till his
arms and legs ached. Six months before the old man's death he
had suddenly given up visiting the Shabelskys. The gossip of the
district having no positive facts to go upon explained this
abrupt change in their relations in various ways. Some said that
the prince, having observed the plain daughter's feeling for him
and being unable to reciprocate it, considered it the duty of a
gentleman to cut short his visits. Others maintained that old
Shabelsky had discovered why his daughter was pining away, and
had proposed to the poverty-stricken prince that he should marry
her; the prince, imagining in his narrow-minded way that they
were trying to buy him together with his title, was indignant,
said foolish things, and quarrelled with them. What was true and
what was false in this nonsense was difficult to say. But that
there was a portion of truth in it was evident, from the fact
that the prince always avoided conversation about Nadyezhda
I knew that soon after her father's death Nadyezhda Lvovna had
married one Kandurin, a bachelor of law, not wealthy, but
adroit, who had come on a visit to the neighbourhood. She
married him not from love, but because she was touched by the
love of the legal gentleman who, so it was said, had cleverly
played the love-sick swain. At the time I am describing,
Kandurin was for some reason living in Cairo, and writing thence
to his friend, the marshal of the district, "Notes of Travel,"
while she sat languishing behind lowered blinds, surrounded by
idle parasites, and whiled away her dreary days in petty
On the way to the house the prince fell to talking.
"It's three days since I have been at home," he said in a half
whisper, with a sidelong glance at the driver. "I am not a
child, nor a silly woman, and I have no prejudices, but I can't
stand the bailiffs. When I see a bailiff in my house I turn pale
and tremble, and even have a twitching in the calves of my legs.
Do you know Rogozhin refused to honour my note?"
The prince did not, as a rule, like to complain of his
straitened circumstances; where poverty was concerned he was
reserved and exceedingly proud and sensitive, and so this
announcement surprised me. He stared a long time at the yellow
clearing, warmed by the sun, watched a long string of cranes
float in the azure sky, and turned facing me.
"And by the sixth of September I must have the money ready for
the bank . . . the interest for my estate," he said aloud, by
now regardless of the coachman. "And where am I to get it?
Altogether, old man, I am in a tight fix! An awfully tight fix!"
The prince examined the cock of his gun, blew on it for some
reason, and began looking for the cranes which by now were out
"Sergey Ivanitch," I asked, after a minute's silence, "imagine
if they sell your Shatilovka, what will you do?"
"I? I don't know! Shatilovka can't be saved, that's clear as
daylight, but I cannot imagine such a calamity. I can't imagine
myself without my daily bread secure. What can I do? I have had
hardly any education; I have not tried working yet; for
government service it is late to begin, . . . Besides, where
could I serve? Where could I be of use? Admitting that no great
cleverness is needed for serving in our Zemstvo, for example,
yet I suffer from . . . the devil knows what, a sort of
faintheartedness, I haven't a ha'p'orth of pluck. If I went into
the Service I should always feel I was not in my right place. I
am not an idealist; I am not a Utopian; I haven't any special
principles; but am simply, I suppose, stupid and thoroughly
incompetent, a neurotic and a coward. Altogether not like other
people. All other people are like other people, only I seem to
be something . . . a poor thing. . . . I met Naryagin last
Wednesday -- you know him? -- drunken, slovenly . . . doesn't
pay his debts, stupid" (the prince frowned and tossed his head)
. . . "a horrible person! He said to me, staggering: 'I'm being
balloted for as a justice of the peace!' Of course, they won't
elect him, but, you see, he believes he is fit to be a justice
of the peace and considers that position within his capacity. He
has boldness and self-confidence. I went to see our
investigating magistrate too. The man gets two hundred and fifty
roubles a month, and does scarcely anything. All he can do is to
stride backwards and forwards for days together in nothing but
his underclothes, but, ask him, he is convinced he is doing his
work and honourably performing his duty. I couldn't go on like
that! I should be ashamed to look the clerk in the face."
At that moment Grontovsky, on a chestnut horse, galloped by us
with a flourish. On his left arm the basket bobbed up and down
with the mushrooms dancing in it. As he passed us he grinned and
waved his hand, as though we were old friends.
"Blockhead!" the prince filtered through his teeth, looking
after him. "It's wonderful how disgusting it sometimes is to see
satisfied faces. A stupid, animal feeling due to hunger, I
expect. . . . What was I saying? Oh, yes, about going into the
Service, . . . I should be ashamed to take the salary, and yet,
to tell the truth, it is stupid. If one looks at it from a
broader point of view, more seriously, I am eating what isn't
mine now. Am I not? But why am I not ashamed of that. . . . It
is a case of habit, I suppose . . . and not being able to
realize one's true position. . . . But that position is most
likely awful. . ."
I looked at him, wondering if the prince were showing off. But
his face was mild and his eyes were mournfully following the
movements of the chestnut horse racing away, as though his
happiness were racing away with it.
Apparently he was in that mood of irritation and sadness when
women weep quietly for no reason, and men feel a craving to
complain of themselves, of life, of God. . . .
When I got out of the chaise at the gates of the house the
prince said to me:
"A man once said, wanting to annoy me, that I have the face of a
cardsharper. I have noticed that cardsharpers are usually dark.
Do you know, it seems that if I really had been born a
cardsharper I should have remained a decent person to the day of
my death, for I should never have had the boldness to do wrong.
I tell you frankly I have had the chance once in my life of
getting rich if I had told a lie, a lie to myself and one woman
. . . and one other person whom I know would have forgiven me
for lying; I should have put into my pocket a million. But I
could not. I hadn't the pluck!"
From the gates we had to go to the house through the copse by a
long road, level as a ruler, and planted on each side with
thick, lopped lilacs. The house looked somewhat heavy,
tasteless, like a faade on the stage. It rose clumsily out of a
mass of greenery, and caught the eye like a great stone thrown
on the velvety turf. At the chief entrance I was met by a fat
old footman in a green swallow-tail coat and big silver-rimmed
spectacles; without making any announcement, only looking
contemptuously at my dusty figure, he showed me in. As I mounted
the soft carpeted stairs there was, for some reason, a strong
smell of india-rubber. At the top I was enveloped in an
atmosphere found only in museums, in signorial mansions and
old-fashioned merchant houses; it seemed like the smell of
something long past, which had once lived and died and had left
its soul in the rooms. I passed through three or four rooms on
my way from the entry to the drawing-room. I remember bright
yellow, shining floors, lustres wrapped in stiff muslin, narrow,
striped rugs which stretched not straight from door to door, as
they usually do, but along the walls, so that not venturing to
touch the bright floor with my muddy boots I had to describe a
rectangle in each room. In the drawing-room, where the footman
left me, stood old-fashioned ancestral furniture in white
covers, shrouded in twilight. It looked surly and elderly, and,
as though out of respect for its repose, not a sound was
Even the clock was silent . . . it seemed as though the Princess
Tarakanov had fallen asleep in the golden frame, and the water
and the rats were still and motionless through magic. The
daylight, afraid of disturbing the universal tranquillity,
scarcely pierced through the lowered blinds, and lay on the soft
rugs in pale, slumbering streaks.
Three minutes passed and a big, elderly woman in black, with her
cheek bandaged up, walked noiselessly into the drawing-room. She
bowed to me and pulled up the blinds. At once, enveloped in the
bright sunlight, the rats and water in the picture came to life
and movement, Princess Tarakanov was awakened, and the old
chairs frowned gloomily.
"Her honour will be here in a minute, sir . . ." sighed the old
lady, frowning too.
A few more minutes of waiting and I saw Nadyezhda Lvovna. What
struck me first of all was that she certainly was ugly, short,
scraggy, and round-shouldered. Her thick, chestnut hair was
magnificent; her face, pure and with a look of culture in it,
was aglow with youth; there was a clear and intelligent
expression in her eyes; but the whole charm of her head was lost
through the thickness of her lips and the over-acute facial
I mentioned my name, and announced the object of my visit.
"I really don't know what I am to say!" she said, in hesitation,
dropping her eyes and smiling. "I don't like to refuse, and at
the same time. . . ."
"Do, please," I begged.
Nadyezhda Lvovna looked at me and laughed. I laughed too. She
was probably amused by what Grontovsky had so enjoyed -- that
is, the right of giving or withholding permission; my visit
suddenly struck me as queer and strange.
"I don't like to break the long-established rules," said Madame
Kandurin. "Shooting has been forbidden on our estate for the
last six years. No!" she shook her head resolutely. "Excuse me,
I must refuse you. If I allow you I must allow others. I don't
like unfairness. Either let all or no one."
"I am sorry!" I sighed. "It's all the sadder because we have
come more than ten miles. I am not alone," I added, "Prince
Sergey Ivanitch is with me."
I uttered the prince's name with no arrire pense, not prompted
by any special motive or aim; I simply blurted it out without
thinking, in the simplicity of my heart. Hearing the familiar
name Madame Kandurin started, and bent a prolonged gaze upon me.
I noticed her nose turn pale.
"That makes no difference . . ." she said, dropping her eyes.
As I talked to her I stood at the window that looked out on the
shrubbery. I could see the whole shrubbery with the avenues and
the ponds and the road by which I had come. At the end of the
road, beyond the gates, the back of our chaise made a dark
patch. Near the gate, with his back to the house, the prince was
standing with his legs apart, talking to the lanky Grontovsky.
Madame Kandurin had been standing all the time at the other
window. She looked from time to time towards the shrubbery, and
from the moment I mentioned the prince's name she did not turn
away from the window.
"Excuse me," she said, screwing up her eyes as she looked
towards the road and the gate, "but it would be unfair to allow
you only to shoot. . . . And, besides, what pleasure is there in
shooting birds? What's it for? Are they in your way?"
A solitary life, immured within four walls, with its indoor
twilight and heavy smell of decaying furniture, disposes people
to sentimentality. Madame Kandurin's idea did her credit, but I
could not resist saying:
"If one takes that line one ought to go barefoot. Boots are made
out of the leather of slaughtered animals."
"One must distinguish between a necessity and a caprice," Madame
Kandurin answered in a toneless voice.
She had by now recognized the prince, and did not take her eyes
off his figure. It is hard to describe the delight and the
suffering with which her ugly face was radiant! Her eyes were
smiling and shining, her lips were quivering and laughing, while
her face craned closer to the panes. Keeping hold of a
flower-pot with both hands, with bated breath and with one foot
slightly lifted, she reminded me of a dog pointing and waiting
with passionate impatience for "Fetch it!"
I looked at her and at the prince who could not tell a lie once
in his life, and I felt angry and bitter against truth and
falsehood, which play such an elemental part in the personal
happiness of men.
The prince started suddenly, took aim and fired. A hawk, flying
over him, fluttered its wings and flew like an arrow far away.
"He aimed too high!" I said. "And so, Nadyezhda Lvovna," I
sighed, moving away from the window, "you will not permit . . ."
-- Madame Kandurin was silent.
"I have the honour to take my leave," I said, "and I beg you to
forgive my disturbing you. . ."
Madame Kandurin would have turned facing me, and had already
moved through a quarter of the angle, when she suddenly hid her
face behind the hangings, as though she felt tears in her eyes
that she wanted to conceal.
"Good-bye. . . . Forgive me . . ." she said softly.
I bowed to her back, and strode away across the bright yellow
floors, no longer keeping to the carpet. I was glad to get away
from this little domain of gilded boredom and sadness, and I
hastened as though anxious to shake off a heavy, fantastic dream
with its twilight, its enchanted princess, its lustres. . . .
At the front door a maidservant overtook me and thrust a note
into my hand: "Shooting is permitted on showing this. N. K.," I
comme il faut: proper
ylang-ylang: an exotic perfume with a heavy, sweat scent
fly agaric: a mushroom
Zemstvo: a district council with locally elected members
arrire pense: afterthought